Talking Movies

July 13, 2017

Taking Stock of Keanu

7 years ago to the day I wrote a piece on how Keanu Reeves, then 45, was dealing with mid-life cinematically. I think it’s time to check on Keanu again.

In the distant halcyon past of 2004 I wrote a profile of Keanu Reeves for the University Observer. He had just declined Superman for Warner Bros when I wrote that profile, and in 2010, not having any currently lucrative franchise, I said he’d be now be considered about 20 years too old to even audition, and George Reeves be damned.  In the Observer piece I’d cryptically noted that “The 40s is the decade where film stars have their last big roles”, but lacked the space to really flesh that out. Somebody, perhaps Barry Norman, had suggested Hollywood leading men lose their cachet on hitting 50, so their 40s are the years where they have both the maturity and the box-office clout to take on the roles for which they will be best remembered. Think John Wayne (Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Sands of Iwo Jima, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Searchers), Gregory Peck (Moby Dick, The Big Country, On the Beach, The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, To Kill a Mockingbird), Michael Douglas (Romancing the Stone, Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, Falling Down). It seems a good enough theory.

Between 2004 and 2014 Keanu appeared in Constantine, Thumbsucker, The Lake House, A Scanner Darkly, Street Kings, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Henry’s Crime, Generation Um…, Man of Tai Chi, 47 Ronin, and John Wick. Like Jack Nicholson in the 1980s he’s not been afraid to play supporting parts. His gleefully self-parodic performance in a glorified cameo in Thumbsucker as a zen orthodontist who spouts Gnostic nonsense to the titular hero is by far the best thing in Mike Mills’ first movie. His turn in Rebecca Miller’s Pippa Lee is also a joy, as his middle-age failed pastor and failed husband screw-up embarks on a tentative romance with Robin Wright’s eponymous character that may just redeem them. Keanu’s sci-fi films, Scanner and Earth, struggled to find large audiences. Richard Linklater’s roto-scoped adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel is a good if odd film but Robert Downey Jr’s manic turn eclipses everything else, while Earth is a serviceable Christmas blockbuster in which Keanu nicely plays the emerging empathy with humans of the alien with awesome powers but the film struggles to truly justify remaking the revered original for the sake of CGI destruction sequences.

As far as leading dramatic roles go Street Kings’ Tom Ludlow must rank as one of his best characters. Ludlow is ‘the tip on the spear’ of the LAPD, a blunt instrument who stages ‘exigent circumstances’ to act on his Dirty Harry impulses and kill the worst criminals. Wrongly implicated in the murder of his former partner he jeopardises an elaborate cover-up by his friends in his single-minded search for the cop-killers, his unstoppable thirst for answers acting as a tragic flaw which reveals that his violent tendencies have been exploited by smarter people. Beside that career highlight The Lake House can seem insubstantial although it is a very sweet entry in the lengthy list of Keanu’s romantic dramas, while Constantine stands out commercially as the franchise that never was… Keanu’s chain-smoking street magus John Constantine bore little resemblance to Alan Moore’s comics character but it powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing, courtesy of future Hunger Games main-man Francis Lawrence; making his directorial debut. Utilising what Lawrence has since spoken of as the twilight zone between PG-13 and R it had a fine sense of metaphysical rather than visceral horror, and was Keanu’s best film since The Matrix.

And then came John Wick

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May 31, 2013

Any Other Business: Part VIII

Bored-to-Death-007

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into an eight portmanteau post on television of course!

 

Hannibal

So, some weeks ago I previewed Hannibal; the blood-spattered new procedural in which Morpheus Laurence Fishburne’s FBI supremo Jack Crawford teams his unstable but gifted profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) with brilliant psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) to fight crime. It seemed that the show would be a tale of friendship between future deadly nemeses before they come into celebrated and chronicled conflict, so, Smallville, basically… No, no, it’s not… Lecter is very much already a supervillain, killing and eating people for fun. Not that the fun is obvious. Hannibal is an incredibly gory network show. If this was on HBO or Showtime it would probably be unbearable, but Hard Candy director David Slade has established a visual template for the show that makes it bearable by distancing the viewer with a cold colour palette and a chilly emotionless feel. At times it’s like watching a very precisely directed Criminal Minds, with exceptionally gory crime scenes and dream sequences interspersed with exceedingly crisp dialogue between two of the BAU team. But we don’t need another Criminal Minds, just look at the fate of its spin-off. So what does this show do with Dr Lecter that’s different? Well, he’s very hard to read, apart from an obvious fastidiousness and a psychotic approach to etiquette. But Mads Mikkelsen’s impassive Lecter is definitely having fun underneath. The look of pride as he sees how good Will’s profile of him is (based on just the copycat murder he carried out to help Will refine his profile of the Minnesota Shrike), the restrained glee he takes in making Jack and Will unwitting accessories in his anthropophagic activities; both indicate this, and a perverse desire to render assistance. With respect to Dominik Moll, perhaps they should rename the show Hannibal, he here’s to help.

 

The ‘Freedom’ of HBO – Case Study: Bored to Death

Many years ago I wrote a piece for the University Observer about the unwonted veneration given to HBO, especially the idea that its writers were totally free because they did not have network TV taste and decency guidelines to work within. I pointed out that Carnivale, which I’d previously trumpeted in the newspaper, had been a rare HBO show with restraint. It had HBO’s brilliant production values, and featured a wonderful use of music, a superb period feel, and – crucially, allowable only because it was on HBO – the patience to tell its story in an elliptical way. But halfway through it felt like some executive saw Carnivale and sent its writers a memo telling them they weren’t using their total freedom in the mandatory manner. The freedom from having to conform to taste and decency becomes the obligation to flout those limits of taste and decency. Carnivale transformed from a superior network show into episodes that merely strung together full frontal stripteases and sex with dramatic dialogue scenes. Taking Jonathan Ames’ abruptly cancelled detective comedy Bored to Death as a case study it seems to belatedly bear out this old reading of HBO’s ‘freedom’. Ames’ insistence on writing or co-writing all 8 episodes a season, which drip bad language from its endlessly stoned central trio of Jonathan, Ray and George, mean that Bored to Death was never likely to survive as a 24 episode a season network comedy. But Ames didn’t indulge in ultra-violence or explicit nudity either so it felt quite different to most of HBO’s output. And then you find a deleted scene from season 1 episode ‘The Case of the Missing Screenplay’ and you realise that a scene was reshot, with the same dramatic purpose and dialogue, but with a shift of location and some added dialogue, purely to add a topless woman; the only female nudity in that season. Was Ames explicitly told that he’d not used his total freedom in the mandatory manner and needed to flout taste and decency in that trademark manner to demonstrate that he was on HBO? Probably not, as that’s not how power works. More likely he realised that there was no female nudity in his show, and, wanting to fit in with accepted corporate culture, went back and added some. However that reshoot came about Ames certainly seemed to learn his lesson, as in season 2 he showcased a women’s locker-room in ‘Escape from the Castle!’ as the central trio rampaged thru it, seeing everything as Patrick Stewart would put it. The deleted scenes from season 2 don’t reveal the existence of any scenes reshot for extra gratuitousness. Odd that…

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part I

In 2005 I wrote a piece for the University Observer titled ‘Huh Huh, Cool’ criticising the reception of Sin City. I find myself in 2011 writing much the same piece again criticising the reception of Drive. But this time I want to get deeper into the question of cinematic violence by trying to categorise the various types and their meaning.

Sin City’s poster campaign displayed with great pride a quote from a review: “The coolest film of the year”. Sin City probably was the coolest film of the year, in the sense that it was definitely the most violent film of the year. It was also grotesque witless garbage but that wasn’t said as much. I decided to position the piece as a pre-empting of the three strident defences usually offered to smack down anyone like me who had the reactionary audacity to object to something like Sin City. The first defence, endlessly aired especially by Taranteenies, holds that the violence is stylised. Stylised violence, the argument goes, isn’t real violence and therefore can’t be condemned. This argument stems from defences of A Clockwork Orange. The problem with citing that film though is that it actually undermines the whole argument about stylised violence being acceptable violence. The violence in the novel was veiled by Anthony Burgess’s parodic and inventive use of language which brought us inside the mind of Alex to whom this kind of activity is fun: “And then I stomped real hard on his yarblockas and the good vino came running out horrorshow good O my brothers”.  “And then I kicked him in the guts till his blood came gushing out” doesn’t entice us into Alex’s world of ultra-violence quite so much. Sadly this literary effect is impossible to replicate onscreen using “stylised violence” because film is a visual medium. You see the blood. Veil the visuals and you can still hear the screams. Perhaps if you were to depict a silent shadow puppet play you might succeed.

“But Frank Miller wrote graphic novels! It’s just comic book violence, not to be taken seriously at all, just like a cartoon” goes the second defence, perhaps invoked after attempts at inserting shadow puppets have failed. Sadly Frank Miller isn’t exactly typical of what comic books actually were, and are, like. This argument presupposes that The Itchy and Scratchy Show is what cartoons were really like rather than Tom and Jerry. The ‘acceptable’ level of violence has vastly increased in the last few decades. Please remember that The A-Team got in trouble in the mid-1980s for violence. That’s right, all those shootouts where no one ever dies, and all the spectacular cars-spinning-in-the-air crashes that end with everyone crawling out unharmed were considered excessively violent. Jack Bauer would laugh at what The Equaliser considered extreme actions, while blockbusters, which are films largely aimed at children, have become ever more violent. I didn’t envy parents explaining to 6 years olds exactly what Obi-Wan did to Anakin at the end of Star Wars III. But the comic-book defence overlooks a huge contradiction. Supervillains are classic villains because they live on. Superman can’t just kill Lex Luthor after struggling with him for a few issues, and the Fantastic Four were never able to simply take out Dr Doom. Buffy is a paradigm in recent years of the patience that it takes to build a classic villain: the Big Bad confronts fights Buffy multiple times, each encounter raising the stakes until a final confrontation in the season finale sees a duel to the death. But film is an idiot medium. It uses violence as a short cut to neatly resolve implacable conflicts, inserting a finality comic-books proudly abjure. Hollywood still operates under the code of the Wild West. The villain nearly always has to die.

The third defence abandoned ideas of irony or context and settled for raising a hue and cry against censorship. “But violence is part of American life, why shouldn’t it be in films?” I judged Hollywood’s beloved defence for prolonging the ethics of Dodge City a fair point, but noted that lack of health insurance and illiteracy problems were also part of American life and with the exception of John Q there weren’t too many films being made about them. Even John Q resorted to the good old familiar violence of a hostage situation in order to slip a film about healthcare under the radar. If filmmakers were sincere in using this defence then they would make films about all facets of American life. I suggested that readers should hold their breath waiting for Tarantino to make a film where a crucial plot point hinged on an illiterate character not being able to read a note left for him and just trying to stumble along according to what he thinks is written down. Then I instructed them to breathe out. It’s been 6 years and Tarantino’s remarkable propensity for violence has still yet to be leavened with any other facet of American life. Tarantino just likes violence, as does Robert Rodriguez, as does Nicolas Winding Refn, and the utter conformity of what gets to be “cool” is astounding. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, Scarface, A Clockwork Orange, all of them featuring ultra-violence if not Beethoven, are cool films and have popular posters sold to college students. Wasn’t coolness based on individuality once? If it achieved nothing else, I argued, Sin City would have done some good if it left people asking just why extreme violence, borderline pornography and drug use seemed to be the only denominations in the currency of cool.

Nobody asked those questions, and sure enough Drive’s poster featured a quote from a reviewer dubbing it the coolest movie of the year. Even more disturbing was that critics in Cannes gave an ovation to the infamous elevator scene in which a man’s head is kicked in until bone-dust rises up into the camera. The three defences I trashed in 2005 aren’t the only dams keeping violence at the heart of cinema, but my objections to Drive can’t be articulated merely by dismantling those defences again. I now want to examine cinematic violence – its uses, its varieties, and its meanings.

November 25, 2011

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part II

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Deja Vu
I’m finding it impossible to work up any enthusiasm either to read Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel The Help or to see its very successful film adaptation. The reason is that The Help is what I like to call a ‘self-evident proposition’ work.

JEFFERSON: Isn’t liberty a great thing?
ADAMS: Um, yes. Were you expecting a different response to that question?
JEFFERSON: No, I just wanted to check that it was indeed a self-evident truth.

Having seen trailers, clips and interviews I feel like I’ve already seen the movie and read the book.

THE HELP: Wasn’t racism in the Deep South in the 1960s awful?
AUDIENCE: Um, yes… obviously – got anything else to add?
THE HELP: Isn’t inter-racial class-divide-crossing female empowerment just swell?
AUDIENCE: Get out…

I praised Emma Stone when I reviewed Superbad for InDublin in 2007 but I’m not about to watch predictable platitudes just to boost her to a well-deserved A-list status. Especially not when the platitudes are wrapped in another faux 1960s package, hot on the heels of Mad Men, Pan Am and X-Men: First Class. I’m a bit of sick of people caricaturing a decade they weren’t around for to make themselves feel enlightened.

The Horns of Desolation
I had the misfortune to stumble across the final scenes of Troy some weeks ago. My Delaney sketches can be traced back to one colour piece in the 2004 Christmas issue of the University Observer where I poured as much scorn as 908 words could hold on Troy. A poorly scripted mess that is stunningly disrespectful of one of the founding texts of Western literature and brought to botched life by a mixture of hammy or simply ill-judged performances Troy is a film that few people will ever watch again willingly. Which leads to the intriguing idea that any work wasted on it could be salvaged for use elsewhere. James Horner scores the fall of Troy with blaring horns and trumpets that bespeak desolation and the fall of an ancient civilisation, and I knew the melody they were playing very well. But I hadn’t seen Troy since 2004 so I couldn’t know the music from Troy itself. I seemed to associate the music with another film entirely but oddly also particularly with just such a scene of a culture being traumatically destroyed. And then it hit me, it’s the music from Avatar! The assault on Hometree and then the final battle – it’s the same horns of desolation. Horner, by association of ideas genuinely composed the same melody and orchestration again, or, (as I hope) directly lifted music he’d composed and foolishly thrown away on a much loathed film and re-used it on a much loved film.

November 16, 2011

Funny Bones

Last year, just before they handed the series over to Living, Sky 1 aired a season 1 episode of Bones instead of the expected season 6 episode, and it was stunning how drastically the show has changed over its run.

I wrote about Bones twice for the University Observer. The first time I was writing about the trend in US television of heroes that we already sympathised with being depicted as achingly alone, rather than their loneliness simply being a device to get us onboard with an unlikely hero such as The OC’s Seth Cohen. Dr Temperance Brennan, the brilliant crime-fighting forensic anthropologist, would tell her FBI partner Seeley Booth, “There’s nothing wrong with going on vacation by yourself”, and then do so frequently, when she wasn’t simply working through the weekend. Bones and House suggested that the excellence of these characters at their jobs was only possible by the sacrifice of their personal lives.

I later wrote an article dissecting Bones’ dramatic motor – the unresolved sexual tension between Dr. Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth. Bones was not alone in using that device as a dramatic motor but it had perhaps the most obviously thwarted yet plausible of the many frustrated relationships littering the TV schedules in 2007, and one that cried out in season 1 for a symbolic Red State/Blue State reading. Towards the end of season 1 Brennan was in New Orleans identifying victims of Hurricane Katrina when she was drugged and framed for murder. Booth immediately rushed from Washington DC to rescue her only to be upbraided on arrival for his sneering attitude towards Voodoo: “I mean, you believe that Jesus rose from the dead…”, “Jesus was not a zombie! I shouldn’t have to tell you this stuff!!”

Brennan and Booth have common values and a genuine attraction that exists despite their ‘ideological’ enmity. Like Barack Obama’s famous 2004 peroration to the Democratic National Convention you can say of their partnership, “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America”. Neither is a mere cipher of a political position. Brennan is militantly atheistic and scientific, but supports the death penalty unreservedly and is emotionally distant as a result of being abandoned to foster-care by her fugitive criminal parents. Booth seems modelled on John Wayne’s heroic straight-shooting all-American persona, but is an unmarried father battling to see his son, who uses his FBI job as atonement for his enormous religious guilt at murdering 50 people as an army sniper. Both characters desperately need the qualities of the other in order to be effective.

The penultimate episode of season 1 managed minor miracles in tackling the occupation of Iraq with respect (if not approbation) for both points of view while being dramatically satisfying and not feeling like a complete cop-out. There was of course only so much tension that could be generated by the politico-sexual friction between the two leads. The first episode of the second season saw Brennan complain at Booth’s snippiness: “I thought we were having an interesting discussion about the War on Drugs”, “Can we please just talk about something we don’t disagree on?!” The dead silence that followed exemplified their deadlocked relationship. Little surprise then that creator Hart Hanson introduced new characters as romantic obstacles to keep the leads apart, seeming happy to relinquish to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip the task of depicting a Blue State/Red State romance for the 2006/7 season with Aaron Sorkin’s Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes as the lovers sundered by politics and faith.

Regrettably Hanson never seemed to take up that task seriously again and season 6 confirmed a number of alarming developments in the show. Brennan used to be unconsciously anti-social – she had spent too much time in the field to remember the social niceties and her conversation suffered from an almost total ignorance of pop culture. Yet season 6 saw her presented as consciously unconsciously anti-social, if that makes sense. Despite 6 years of working with Booth she acted rudely when surely she must have learnt from his example what to say by now in nearly every circumstance. In many ways her character seemed to have regressed – the hideous attempts at jokes in particular were nothing more than horrible gurning by Emily Deschanel which was as uncomfortable to watch as it probably was to perform. This impulse towards comedy at the expense of character consistency was not an isolated incident though, but part of a trend.

The music changed over the seasons from mere background mood music to cutesy cues to indicate that everything was funny; in other words that the show itself had changed from what it originally was, a clever forensics procedural interspersed with great gags, to a modestly smart forensics sitcom with no laugh track for its constant modestly funny gags. Any doubt of this change in direction can be dispelled by noting the change in psychiatrist from Stephen Fry to John Francis Daley. Fry was cast because as a tall clever British psychiatrist he could literally look down on Booth in judgement. Daley is a young silly American psychiatrist who Booth literally just looks down on. Similarly when Zach was written out of the show at the end of season 3 he was replaced by a revolving line-up of squinterns, each of which appeared chosen for their particular comedic shtick, even if they would eventually be belatedly granted a modicum of depth. A dramatic imperative was consistently replaced by a comedic dynamic.

The decision to kill Mr Nigel-Murray at the hands of Booth’s sniper nemesis Brodsky, after a lengthy ominously scored montage which put all the characters potentially in jeopardy, was therefore terribly misjudged. The show simply cannot sustain that type of dramatic weight at this point in its development, whereas it still could when Zach was shockingly revealed as the apprentice to the cannibal serial killer Gormagon in the traumatic finale of season 3. By far the best episode of season 6 was the episode that most closely approximated season 1 – Brennan losing her grip on reality as she investigated the death of her apparent doppelganger, a brilliant socially isolated surgeon. Her tearful declaration of love for Booth and subsequent heartbroken acceptance that she had missed her chance for happiness by her reluctance to take a risk on him when he suggested it in season 5 was both incredibly dramatically satisfying and a reminder of what the show used to be.

Season 7 will largely eschew Emily Deschanel – written out for her pregnancy. Can the show survive that and will it ever square its political circle when she returns now that Booth’s romantic anger has subsided and Brennan’s imperviousness/strength balance has reached the point where they can get it together properly?

Bones season 7 begins its run on Living at 9pm tonight.

August 18, 2011

Medium’s Realism

Allison DuBois sees dead people. And yet despite the show’s high concept being supernatural in the extreme Medium has been one of the most realistic shows on TV…

When I trumpeted Medium in the University Observer in 2005 I noted that it derived its emotional impact from the way creator Glenn Gordon Caron and ace Dark Angel writer/producers Moira Kirland, Rene Echevarria, and later Robert Doherty, were able to weave together domestic dramas and bizarre visions in an utterly plausible fashion. The initial hook of the show was second-guessing how Patricia Arquette’s cryptic visions would help the police solve baffling crimes. But the real hook for long-term viewing was the emotional meat of the show. I dubbed it, despite my love of the Cohens in The OC, the only portrayal worth a damn on US TV of a normal married couple raising children, with the little triumphs and little pitfalls that go with the territory. When the two strands combined, as in the episode where the ghost of a serial killer from the 1880s stalked eldest daughter Ariel, the results were truly heart-stopping, not least because that episode played out in flashbacks that implied Allison had failed to prevent her murder – a point to be returned to later. Medium’s realistic family dynamic only became more impressive an achievement over time as the strain on Joe of handling his wife and daughter’s abilities began to show, and the daughters not only became more rebellious as they aged but also more susceptible to the Roland family gift/curse for picking up psychic flashes.

It may seem odd to characterise long-takes, a favourite trick of showy directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Alfonso Cuaron, as being realistic, but Medium has always used handheld cameras that, without descending into the shaky-cam madness of JJ Abrams or Paul Greengrass, add an air of rough immediacy to proceedings, and when these cameras, so often deployed by the last-named auteurs for rapidly edited shots, suddenly do long-takes it affords an almost theatrical intimacy; especially as these long-takes are quite often gruesome confessions by killers, plot revelations achieved by a simple shift of the frame to one side to reveal an obscured detail, or horrendous crimes being unnervingly observed with an unblinking eye.

Medium was also depicting money worries in a middle-class family in the American Southwest years before the acclaimed Breaking Bad ‘broke new ground’ by doing so. The 7 seasons of Medium can almost be characterised by Joe’s fluctuating fortunes in the job market as much as by Allison’s murder cases. From happily employed to then working under stress at large corporation Aerodytech, to helplessly unemployed, to starting his own company, to working on his own invention for another corporation, to working again as a drone for yet another corporation under an inspired maniac, to replacing said maniac, Joe’s career has been a rollercoaster reflecting the sheer uncertainty of the modern economy which valorises flexibility while ignoring what that actually means. The sheer terror of being bankrupted by frivolous or half-plausible but unjust lawsuits, because you have very little savings left after the business of living has attacked your paycheque, has been dramatised repeatedly in Medium. It’s never been a given that Joe and Allison will escape financial armageddon because, unlike Breaking Bad’s excessively all-pervasive bleakness, there’s always been an unnerving lack of guaranteed happy endings in Medium. It has repeatedly demonstrated that for all her paranormal powers Allison can’t always get her man. In some cases she has egregiously failed to catch the killer and never got a second bite at the cherry. Against the backdrop that things don’t always end well, Medium has created a good deal of dread from bad familial and financial situations.

Finally there’s the realism factor engendered by the remarkable fact that they don’t do supernatural crimes on Medium, despite the occult premise of the show. Indeed one scene, during an investigation of a priest’s death, which suggested that a demon had actually possessed a possessed girl was absolutely terrifying because it broke with two seasons’ worth of assurances that the supernatural solved crimes but had no part in committing them. Sure there have been moments that get close to supernatural crimes, such as David Arquette as Allison’s ne’er-do-well brother letting John Glover take control of his body, but what Glover does then isn’t particularly supernatural as a crime; he merely uses his charisma as a motivational speaker to tempt people to succumb to an addiction they’ve been fighting, such as cigarettes or alcohol. Similarly while Allison has variously gone deaf, lost control of her hand, or lost her ability to recognise English, none of these conditions has been anything but ‘hysterical blindness’ writ large; as Rena Sofer’s doctor dubbed it in the final season: a psychological reaction to an emotional trauma. Medium as a show has dealt in realistic crimes, but these have been frequently been at the extremely chilling end of the spectrum of psychosis, as it’s been very concerned with violence against women and children. Despite being driven by a strong female lead character it’s never shrunk from depicting women as extremely vulnerable physically to the predations of disturbed men. Serial killers aplenty have committed crimes against women in Allison’s Phoenix stronghold, Eric Stoltz’s killer a terrifying example, and there’s been incredibly disturbing attacks on children too, including a horrendous crime that Det. Lee Scanlon unwittingly failed to prevent when he was a beat cop.

Medium lost some great writers along the way but it kept its standard high to the very end, and its controversial finale proved it was never afraid to be realistic to a fault.

Medium continues its swansong seventh season on Living, Fridays at 9pm.

June 22, 2011

One Day (like this a year will see me right)

Regular readers will know that I appeared on Dublin South FM’s The First Saturday Book Club a couple of weeks ago, discussing David Nicholls’ 2009 novel One Day with Sorcha Nic Mhathuna, Eoghan Rice, and host Eve Rowan. Click here to listen to a podcast of that show.

Book Summary
Working-class Emma Morley and rich-kid Dexter Mayhew meet for the first time on the night of their graduation in 1988. They bungle becoming a couple, but an intense bond develops through Emma’s long letters to Dexter as he travels the globe. Dexter becomes a famous TV presenter given to patronising Emma, who is reduced to waitressing, but when she becomes a teacher her relationship with the increasingly arrogant Dexter falters. Dexter’s career implodes due to his alcoholism, while Emma becomes a successful children’s author, but Dexter’s shot-gun marriage foils their coming together. Will Dexter and Emma ever both be in the right place at the right time? And do they deserve a happy ending?

Structures & Pitfalls
BBC scriptwriter David Nicholls previously wrote Starter for Ten, and this starts off as another class conscious romantic comedy before it develops into something a good deal more ambitious; almost a history of social change in Britain between 1988 and 2007. The gimmick blazoned on the book cover, ‘Twenty Years. Two People. One Day’; referring to Nicholls’ audacious decision to only cover in detail the lives of this odd couple for the 15th of July each year; serves two purposes. The first of these is to allow him to gallop over a vast span of time and draw out the pop culture of each year. The second is to allow him to surprise the reader with sudden shifts between chapters. The latter is a trick well-worn by Patrick O’Brian in the Master & Commander novels, where cliff-hangers chapter endings routinely lead into chapters set months later that make no reference to how the cliff-hanger was resolved till half-way thru. Here it allows Nicholls to present conversations where you’re unsure if Dexter is addressing Emma or yet another bimbo girlfriend, and where characters change jobs and locations radically in a page.

The first purpose becomes an increasing problem as the novel progresses as there are too many attempts to cram every possible event in recent British history into the narrative. Dexter presents a show that is basically The Word, and then Channel 4’s failed rival to Later with Jools Holland, before ending up in the impeccably trendy organic food business. Emma bounces around from waitressing to teaching to becoming sort of JK Rowling. Emma’s disastrous meeting with a publisher is the nadir of this technique as it sees her standing on the South Bank afterwards recalling how jubilant she was the last time she was there, celebrating Blair’s 1997 landslide; of course Emma was there celebrating Blair’s victory you groan, Nicholls just had to tick that box… The gimmick works well for the first sections of the novel, as this is a day that the characters would consciously mark, and it becomes that again in the closing section, but during the middle sections of the book (as Dexter becomes ever more obnoxious) it feels very contrived.

Em & Dex: Rom-Com or Hardy-Com?
The character of Dexter is a problem. Emma is loveable and believable from start to finish as she manages to slowly sort her life out, but the privileged Dexter who is initially charming becomes increasingly irritating as he diligently works his way thru every cliché of Britpop excess. By contrast Nicholls’ protean minor characters are brilliantly drawn, from Dexter’s co-presenter Suki Meadows, whose bubbly personality is imagined as liable to start a letter of condolence with the word ‘Wahey!’, to his elegant bohemian mother Alison, who likes Emma precisely for the moment which embarrassed both Emma and Dexter; when Emma called Dexter’s father a bourgeois fascist for his views on Nicaragua, Alison saw a girl with some spine who would stand up to Dexter as he would desperately need his partner to. Alison sees the chemistry between Emma and Dexter that sustains the novel, until its circular ending which reveals more of their magical first day together, despite the truth of Emma’s unfunny stand-up boyfriend Ian’s observation that Dexter takes Emma for granted.

The ending suggests that Nicholls is so in thrall to his beloved Thomas Hardy that he chooses this particular ending merely to cast a backward profundity over what has gone before. The tragedy is that Nicholls does not need do this. Sure, there are moments that are reminiscent of other works. Dexter’s meeting with his agent is straight out of Extras, Emma’s feeble attempts at writing strongly suggest Spaced, and a disastrous sequence involving Dexter is practically lifted from Meet the Parents. But Nicholls has an undeniable skill at summarising cultural shifts in gags; in the 1980s of The Clash and Billy Bragg all the boys wanted to be Che Guevara, thinks Emma, in the Loaded and FHM zeitgeist of Britpop all the boys now want to be Hugh Hefner; and his greatest ability is not this sort of cultural commentary, but what seems to embarrass him.

Dexter’s long letter asking Emma to join him in India features the most memorable romantic comedy gesture I’ve read recently. Dexter tells her to stand in the centre of the Taj Mahal at noon wearing a red rose and holding a copy of Nicholas Nickleby, and he will find her; he will be wearing a white rose and holding the copy she gave him of Howards End. But Dexter forgets to post this letter; which will have you screaming, ‘No! Dexter!!’, at your book. An author capable of conjuring that level of emotional involvement with his characters and such deliriously heightened moments shouldn’t apologise for being a cracking rom-com writer, not Hardy…

Read the book, don’t wait for the movie. Any production which casts Anne Hathaway as Emma rather than Spaced‘s Jessica Stevenson obviously hasn’t a clue.

June 2, 2011

The First Saturday Book Club

I thought I’d drop in a plug here for a radio appearance I’m making this weekend.

Regular readers will have noticed my fellow academic Graham Price providing a final thought in my theatre reviews of The Silver Tassie and The Cripple of Inishmaan. Well now I’m following in his footsteps by appearing on Dublin South FM’s The First Saturday Book Club. The show will be broadcast from Dundrum Town Centre this Saturday June 4th at 12:30pm. A critical mass of ex-University Observer writers will be present given that I’ll be joined by editor emeritus Sorcha Nic Mhathuna and that the show is hosted by Eve Rowan.

The book under discussion this month is One Day by David Nicholls. BBC scriptwriter Nicholls previously wrote the novel Starter for Ten, and then the screenplay of its film adaptation, and One Day starts off similarly as a class conscious romantic comedy in the late 1980s focused on the intense friendship between two recent graduates Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley, before it develops into something a good deal more ambitious. The story of Dexter and Emma becomes nothing less than the story of Britain itself in the last 20 years.

The gimmick blazoned on the title ‘Twenty Years. Two People. One Day’ refers to Nicolls’ audacious decision to surf in and out of the lives of this odd couple by focusing on them for only one day of each year, and always the same day; St Swithin’s Day, the day they graduated and finally talked to each other. Does this technique work, or does it become contrived? Can an unrequited platonic love story really handle being burdened with the symbolic significance of representing a nation’s recent social and political history?

Well, if you want to hear what we all made of the book, tune in to 93.9FM, or listen to the podcast later at http://dublinsouthfm.ie/shows/95/The-First-Saturday-Book-Club.

March 4, 2011

Personal Movies

What then might a ‘personal movie’ be?

I would define a ‘personal movie’ as a film which may not be that great objectively, but which holds for you a deep personal meaning; which is either enigmatically inexplicable, or, is incommunicable except in emotional connection with a time, place and person. A work of art can often become a kind of mental hook on which we hang experiences. I first read Brideshead Revisited mere days after picking up my Leaving Cert results and then immediately afterwards buying Blur’s Parklife album. To this day there are times when I’ll be reading Brideshead and the sound of the brass intro to ‘Badhead’ will float through my head, not as a discordant note in a story set in the inter-war period, but as an essential part of my first experience of reading this rich novel while I waited to start college. I’m sure everyone has similar Proustian moments of hearing a song and instantly associating it with a certain time and place.

I think the same is true for personal movies. They will take on a resonance which can be almost completely unrelated to their quality, and the resonance of that first encounter will forever echo thru subsequent viewings. A friend of mine became hopelessly devoted to The Holiday, fully aware that it’s a terrible film, because of the emotional resonance of particular architecture featured in the film as well as its theme of betrayals in love. Another friend had something of a Joycean epiphany while watching Betty Blue as a teenager and has, perhaps not coincidentally, ended up living in France. Resonance can come from within a film or be introduced into it from without, and sometimes can just be a matter of timing. I avoided the release of Almost Famous in early 2001, and only finally saw it on television in early summer 2004, which meant that the film resonated with me more than it ever could have in 2001 as in the interim I had discovered Led Zeppelin…

Just over a year ago, as preparation for my Top 10/Worst 10 Films of the Decade one-off return to the University Observer, I posted Films of the Decade? This provisional list of 20 films featured a few personal movies but I felt I could argue they were also either great movies or reflected the decade exceptionally; in other words that there was some sort of Eliotian objective correlative for the personal meaning they held for me. I saw Roger Avary’s 2002 film The Rules of Attraction just days before my birthday during its extremely limited release in 2003. I’ve since heard others say it’s the best film from Bret Easton Ellis’ work and an improvement on the source novel. The film’s unflinching bleakness struck a chord because I was at a low ebb when I saw it; tremendously frustrated with problems in writing my PhD dissertation. Since then it has repeatedly aired on TV, uncannily nearly always when I’ve felt hopeless, and the ecstatic bliss of its nihilism has lifted me out of my ruts.

I think everyone has a stack of personal movies like this, and who knows, perhaps the reason old classics are classics is simply because, however odd it may sound, they are deeply personal movies – for millions of people.

October 15, 2010

Mr Norris Changes Trains

Yes, as you may have guessed from the Christopher Isherwood referenceing title, this is the official announcement of a slight modification of the aims of Talking Movies.

Regular readers will have noted this modification in action over the last few months with several television and theatre thinkpieces and several theatre reviews popping up. I’ve knocked out 60 pieces in the 58 weeks since I started writing this blog weekly at the end of August 2009, and I feel it’s time to shake things up a bit. I set out to produce a weekly blog that mixed film reviews with film features serious and nonsensical, and to keep things interesting, funny and unpredictable to write as well as read. Talking Movies will, true to its title, remain predominantly a weekly film blog but part of keeping it interesting, funny and unpredictable for me as well as for you involves being more varied in content as well as form. There will be more theatre reviews, as well as features on books, music and television, mixed in with, but not replacing, the usual film reviews, features and colour pieces.

We live in an interesting world and there are many other mediums beside cinema which produce work worth writing about so it’s time for me to return to my eclectic origins in the University Observer where, before my film column, I was writing on comedy, theatre, television, books, music and occasionally even politics. I’d like to thank everyone who’s read the blog over the last year (sic), especially those who commented on it, linked to it, or gave feedback in other media, and hope that you regard this modification as enriching it rather than diminishing it. In the near future I’ll be writing pieces about The Corrections, CSI: NY and Auf Der Maur, as well as Alexandre Aja, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, 3-D, typecasting and nostalgia.

Well, that’s enough hostages to fortune to be going on with…

‘Keep watching the skies!’

Or at the very least this url: fergalcasey.wordpress.com

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